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The use of Plan B raises moral issues, but not canonical ones

June 11, 2013

The acquiescence of the FDA to a federal judge’s removal of the last restrictions on access to Plan B means that, sooner or later, Catholic confessors will be approached by women who, thinking they were (or were very shortly to become) pregnant, took this drug in order to prevent, or to abort, said pregnancies. These confessors, and indeed some penitents themselves, will have questions about their status under canon law.

Notwithstanding that abortion is an excommunicable offense (1983 CIC 1398) and that destruction of pre-born human life at any point after fertilization is embraced within the canonical definition of abortion (AAS 80: 1818-1819), I suggest that women using Plan B, whatever might be their moral culpability for having acted as they did, are not canonically liable to excommunication for abortion.

To carry this point, I need make only a few canonical and/or forensic observations.

Canonically: No one aged 15 or under (incidentally, the age group embraced within the federal judge’s ruling) is liable to any sanction whatsoever under canon law. 1983 CIC 1323, 1º. As I have argued elsewhere, those aged sixteen and seventeen are not liable to excommunication (1983 CIC 1324 § 1, 4º) for anything, and pregnant women are almost certainly not bound by the automatic excommunication threatened for abortion. 1983 CIC 1324 § 3. See gen. 2010 CLSA Adv. Op. 169-182.

Forensically: The factual uncertainty about whether a typical woman taking Plan B is pregnant at that time, uncertainty about how exactly Plan B “prevents” pregnancy in concrete cases (specifically, whether it is a true contraceptive or really works as an abortifacient), and the demonstrably high rates of natural, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), means that it would be, under any plausible scenario, forensically impossible to prove with moral certitude (see 1983 CIC 18, 221 § 3, etc.) that the use of Plan B in a specific case actually resulted in an abortion in that case. See gen. 2011 CLSA Adv. Op. 109-111.

Confessors, therefore, in my opinion, dealing with penitents confessing the use of Plan B, need only focus on the serious moral implications of a penitent’s willingness to act as she did, and need not concern themselves with potential canonical implications for abortion.

Update, 12 June 2013:

Want another example of why one should ALWAYS read the canonical assertion in question, and not someone’s, even a friendly’s, characterization of the canonical assertion in question? I got one.

A friendly link to my post above invites readers to it by saying “Abortion is an excommunicable sin, but girls under 15 who take Plan-B should not be held to account by confessors.” I said no such thing.

First, abortion is an excommunicable CRIME (one based on sin, yes, but it’s the elements of crime that are relevant, not necessarily those of sin); but that’s small imprecision—the second is worse: Confessors should not ‘hold to account’ girls under 15 who take Plan B?

OF COURSE confessors should hold such girls to account, as they would hold to account any human being aged 15 who engaged in objectively grave sin, that is, in accord with the total circumstances of the act. My only point above was that confessors need not regard such girls as potentially excommunicated for abortion; I never suggested that they need not be ‘held to account’ in terms of morality.

Well, as I always say, when you want canon law, read canon law, not what people—even well-intentioned people—say about canon law.

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